An Interview with Douglas Leedy (August, 1974)

by Valerie Samson

Ear, vol. 4 no. 4, April 1976, used by permission

copyright 1976 Valerie Samson

The Center for World Music is in the middle of a very busy and exciting summer, and Douglas Leedy has returned to the Bay Area to study there. Born in Portland, Oregon, Leedy went to Southern California, studying composition with Karl Kohn at Pomona College. He came into contact with the Institute of Ethnomusicology at U.C.L.A. and has pursued a deep interest in the music of other cultures ever since. He completed an M.A. at U.C. Berkeley, won many awards including a Fromm Foundation Commission, and traveled to Poland before returning to Los Angeles to teach at U.C.L.A., where he established an electronic music studio and an early music performance group. He has recently taught at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and lives in the Cascades near Mt. Hood. I ask him about his interest in South Indian vocal music and he begins to talk at length on the influences of other cultures on Western music.


DL: I feel very indebted to technology and our media for my interest in South Indian vocal music, because without phonograph recordings, I would never know about any of this. My interest in the music of other cultures really is a result of having listened to very, very good recordings of this music.

VS: Are there many recordings available?

DL: Oh, yes! Lots and lots! More all the time. The Nonesuch World Explorer series has absolutely superb recordings of South Indian, Javanese, and Balinese music. Also, when I was an undergraduate, I actually saw a Javanese gamelan at U.C.L.A.. Their institute, which no longer exists, is the granddaddy of ethnomusicology programs in the United States.

VS: Would you say that there's a demand for this kind of music education and experience ?

DL: Terrific demand, more all the time. The more people become exposed to this music, the more demand there will be.

VS: Is our culture changing as it becomes more and more aware of other cultures? Is it affecting the kind of music that is being written today ?

DL: Oh, yes. It already has to a certain extent. It affected Debussy and it affected a lot of people. Messiaen has been influenced by the Indian rhythmic patterns, the talas. The French are very subject to these influences, the Germans aren't. (Chuckling) Americans are terrifically subject because, as Buckminster Fuller said, America is the crossroads between East and West. So we're really involved in it. Betty Wong is a very good example of this. She and her sister were brought up in the Western tradition, yet they have applied their musical understanding lately to performances of Chinese music.

Because they can do BOTH Chinese and Western music in a virtuoso way — I think it's almost entirely unprecedented. There are going to be more and more people who can do that. — And the reverse of that is true. There are a few people now who have come to be very, very good performers outside of their culture. If we really consider world culture to be unifying, then there is no inside or outside. But that's dangerous, too, because Chinese and Javanese music are changing because of our influence on them, as well as our changing because of their influence on us.

VS: Our influence on them is greater than their influence on us?

DL: Yes, unfortunately It's a matter of cultural desire. For a long time now, and especially since the Second World War, Asiatic cultures have wanted to Americanize themselves, because America's RICH. It' s a very crass thing, materialism, but now there's a very strong reaction to try to preserve the indigenous cultural traditions before they're completely destroyed. Some of them already have been apparently, since they weren't written down in any way.

VS: You mentioned that your ethnomusicological studies have influenced the music your write. Do you use the instruments in your writing?

DL: No. The only instrument that I have used that is common to these other musics that I'm interested in is the voice. One reason I'm interested in South Indian music is because it's essentially a vocal tradition rather than instrumental. My approach uses western instruments and, up to this point, uses notation to convey the music. I suppose you want to know how, if I' m not writing for non-Western instruments, how my music is influenced. Well, it's not on a superficial level of what kind of instruments I use or even what kind of timbres. It's actually on lower levels and less immediately obvious. There was a time when a number of composers just imitated the sounds of a Chinese orchestra or a gagaku, or whatever. It seems to me that's not very fruitful. It's like taking a Moog synthesizer and — people always ask me, "can you make it sound like an oboe ?" But that seems to me pointless, because you already have an instrument that sounds like an oboe. And if you a1ready have a gamelan, I don't see any point in writing pieces for a western orchestra that sound like a gamelan. You'd be a lot better off just having the gamelan.

VS: It's like trying to synthesize an egg or something.

DL: Right! Exactly. — The music of other cultures has changed my way of thinking about really basic things, like time. Time is, perhaps, the MOST fundamental aspect of a musical experience. It separates it from almost all other art forms. It takes place over an expanse of time and creates different conceptions of what temporal experiences are, and, in general, western music has been, for the last hundred and fifty years, very linear and very goal-oriented. In a Strauss tone-poem, you can point to and say "this is the climax" and 'this is where it's going". Even in a Bach chorale you have harmonic progressions that go towards a certain goal. Play those harmonic progressions backwards and they don't sound good because they don't go towards a goal. They head away from it, and it's like music that's falling apart instead of making itself more and more clear as it goes along.

Most Eastern music really isn't like that, in that what's very often important is a vertical structure of a kind of sound that's associated with a certain emotional state, perhaps. They' re steady states, not changing or going towards resolutions. In the gamelan — some people get very bored with this but I never do — we play a tune over and over again. Say it has 16 or 32 notes, and it can be embroidered, and the embellishment of it can change, but it just simply is played over and over again. It induces a certain state in the listener that almost seems as if it's not a dynamic state because it's not headed towards some Western-type goal or climax.

VS: So you have, in your music, replaced the western orientation of going towards a goal with this sort of embellishment procedure?

DL: Well, yeah. My attitude towards music has really changed. — To put it another way, in a Beethoven symphony that you know, if somebody dropped the needle somewhere in one of the movements, you would be able to tell whether it was the development or the recapitulation or the second theme or the first theme, and so on. That's not true of all Western music. It's not nearly so true of some music of the Renaissance, like the Renaissance motet or mass where you're certain you know where you are because of the words, but you really don't know how long, say the Et incarnatus est, is going to be. As the composer draws out the ending of it a little longer, you think "Oh, isn't that marvelous! I don't really want it to end," and you're kind of lost. Your sense of beginning, middle, and end is really wiped away. I won't try to claim that Eastern philosophy or Eastern art has no sense of beginning, middle, and end, but it does differ — I'm interested in writing music where the sense of time is lost. A lot of people find that boring, because they like to know exactly where they are. It's a particularly American thing to want to know EXACTLY where you are at any given moment in your life, in your bank account, and in your day to day routine. You look at your watch — I quit wearing one about five or six years ago and I still have to find out what time it is every now and then, but I feel a lot better without it. Certainly I'm not the first person in Western music to say the things that I've said or to be interested in what I'm interested in.

VS: I see Steve Reich has similar interests.

DL: Steve Reich does, Terry Riley, John Cage, Bob Moran, and there are earlier people, too. Henry Cowell was one of the first people to develop the philosophy that his own music could contain extensive Eastern and Western philosophy. So what I'm doing is, I guess, part of a mainstream of American thought of the last 15 years or so.

VS: Do you feel as if you will continue in this direction in the future? You've had such a diverse background that maybe this is just one phase you're going through.

DL: Well, it is a phase that I'm going through, there's no doubt about that. It's really hard for me to clarify this in just a few words. I've gone through quite a few phases. The first music that I wrote was very Hindemithian, and then I got very interested in Ives. I was terrifically interested in Ives by the time I was in high school, before he died in 1954. He represents something really very marvelous and unique about American composers. Anyway, when I got to college, it was quite the thing to be interested in Schoenberg. Neoclassicism had just passed its peak and was on its way out. Stravinsky had already written The Rake's Progress , but the American academic style was still one of neoclassicism, particularly for people in the east like Irving Fine, Arthur Berger, Harold Shapero, and Elliot Carter. Roger Sessions was writing tonal music at that time. Then, while I was in college, the new wave really was Webern, the post-Schoenbergian serial technique. That hit me fairly hard at the time. I began writing serial music, and then pseudo-serial pieces where I gave up serial technique while still writing atonally. That's the kind of music I was writing when I came to Cal in 1959. Then, while I was writng serial music for my classes, I was already writing Gebrauchsmusik which was modal, diatonic music for small, inexperienced choirs and small groups of instruments...

VS: Why?

DL: I have no idea. At the time, what I thought I wanted to write was serial music. Well, when I got to Cal, I immediately came under the influence of LaMonte Young and Terry Riley.

VS: They were students there at the time ?

DL: Yes. Actually it was an incredible year, these two years, 1959 and 1960. LaMonte Young, Terry Riley, Loren Rush, and Charles MacDermed were all students in the Graduate composition seminar, and over in San Francisco at the tape music center were Pauline Oliveros, Morton Subotnick, and Ramon Sender. Oh, it was just unbelievable. Everything was happening right here. I didn't realize that all this was going on when I came. Actually I was looking forward to studying with Imbrie and Seymour Shifrin, but that turned out to be a very frustrating and disappointing experience. I immediately became aware of the problems of being up against people whose thinking had completely petrified. I could tell you some hair-raising stories, but I wouldn't do it while the tape is on...

In the arts, maybe it's dangerous not to make up your mind. But it certainly is dangerous to make it up for good and all. If a really authentic experience comes along and it doesn't fit into your view, then it just passes you by, and I think that's a real tragedy.

VS: An you would say that there are, in most cases, many experiences that would come along that would not fit into whatever structure a composer might make for himself?

DL: Yes, they could. I've seen it happen lots of times, and it's always very sad. I'm really a very eclectic person. My composition falls into all kinds of different categories. When I was being scrutinized for a job that was open at U.C.L.A., which I was hired for, one of the senior composers on the faculty listened to quite a bit of my music and was quoted as saying "I don't think he's found his style yet". Well, I really hope I never lock up, you know, foreclose my future possibilities in that way.

VS: Stravinsky kept evolving. He didn't close himself.

DL: Sure, sure. That's one of the greatest things about him, that every piece was just a new experience, and I think this is really very important. Well, anyway, I found my study at Cal to be very, very valuable. I was especially interested in what La Monte was doing, and I've been interested in what he's been doing ever since. He got me interested in drones, and thinking in terms of very long time spans. He was into long, long held notes that lasted maybe 5 minutes. His string trio was a piece where I think just a B Major chord sounds — just really beautiful.

VS: How long were you at Cal (U.C. Berkeley)?

DL: Well, after I got my master's degree I stayed around and pursued a doctorate, but I gave it up. I started to write my dissertation, and I got a hundred pages into it, and one day I just tossed it all in the wastebasket. It was going to be on the songs of Hector Berlioz. I always identified with Berlioz because he didn't get along with his teachers. He's a very great and very misunderstood composer, and I wanted to set the record straight.

VS: Do you think you ever will?

DL: Oh, maybe. Very possibly so. I hope so. Anyway, my main interest is simple, modal, diatonic music. This has been the one common interest throughout my whole career of writing.

VS: By modal, do you mean in the sense of the old church modes?

DL: Yes, and also in the sense of other scale possibilities, including pentatonic and even restricted pitch material as severe as John Cage's The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs, which has only three notes. I have always felt, somehow, that to have 12 tones in an octave, or even 24, is almost too much.

VS: Do you make up your own modes ? Or devise scales that suit you?

DL: No. I'm using essentially the diatonic scale in the western tradition. My music doesn't modulate. It's almost always in the key of G and it doesn't do much. And because it doesn't do much you have to concentrate on smaller things. It's like Terry Riley' s In C where, because there's so much repetition, you concentrate on very subtle changes. That's true of Steve Reich's music, too, and it's true of mine in a very different sense. My music is more traditionally melodic and more lyrical, though it does repeat a lot. Even though I don't make up scales, I am very much interested in tuning and temperament, and I have been for years. I've always found equal temperament to be a nightmare for me, not because of the 5ths, but because of the thirds and particularly the sixths. I always thought there was something wrong with Brahms' piano music. It sounded out of tune. And then I realized that it was because of the parallel sixths. They always sounded terribly out of tune to me. And as I got away from writing at the piano, which I did for a long time, my music became more consonant. I did a lot of singing for the first time.

VS: And when you sing, you can perfect —

DL: Yes. And when I think of a major third, I think of a real, just, major third. One of the things that interests me so much about Indian music is that the 22 srutis, the tones of the octave, are conceived in terms of simple whole number ratios, like five to four for the major third and six to five for the minor third. Everything is just, and no matter how fast an Indian sings, the notes are always the true notes. The only system in which this is possible is a system where there is no modulation, essentially. There is a drone and a melody. The melody forms perfect intervals with the drone rather than with itself or another melody.

VS: Do you think you'll ever write for piano again?

DL: I have had in mind a piano piece for quite awhile. It's a piece that could be played on a keyboard instrument tuned in mean-tone, or equal temperament, or various kinds of unequal temperaments which I've been experimenting with this summer.

VS: As a composer, do you feel you are combining elements that have not necessarily been used together before?

DL: No, I don't feel that. Sometimes I feel — my big hobby is cooking. And I would be content, if in a lifetime I perfected certain techniques to the point where I could cook really authentic Indian food. There's no truly creative element in it. I'm not synthesizing American and South Indian cuisine. I sometimes feel, in music, that it would be enough for me to be able to perfect, to achieve a full and perfect understanding of the contrapuntal technique of the high Renaissance, for instance. There's no active creative element in that at all, except for the fact that I'm the one who's doing it, and not Victoria or Josquin. I wouldn't necessarily be aping somebody's style, but perfecting it in my own terms, just as if I were cooking a South Indian dinner. You can't completely disassociate your personality from an activity.

VS: Why would you compose, then, if you could find satisfaction from devoting yourself to the perfection of a single idea or style?

DL: Well — (thinking) — It's a kind of a social activity in that I am trying to develop a line of communication between people that can't be expressed any other way. I think most composers would probably answer that question the same way, even though any two composers might differ widely in the way in which they communicated.

VS: So having an audience is very important ?

DL: I don't care about an audience. That's another important aspect of world music that we really have lost track of in the West. In India everybody sings. It's participatory. And in the villages of Indonesia, there really is almost nobody left for an audience. In Bali, ALL the men perform the Monkey Chant, so there's really no audience left except for the women, who are probably involved in something too. In the Vietnamese language, for example, there's no word for composer. The performer is naturally thought of as the one who does traditional material and embellishes it and adds to it. Any performer can do this. In many American Indian tribes every man, at least, was required to go out into the woods and spend a few days composing his own song, which expressed himself. After singing it to the elders he might have to go back and change it, but everybody had to learn a song and sing it. And of course they had songs that they all sang together.

Our division of music into such categories as we have in the west has been somewhat unfortunate. We have essentially a composer who, as John Cage says, tells people what to do. We have the performers who do what the composer tells them, and we have the audience , who is two steps removed from the composer. The audience is completely passive and just sits and marvels. And what people can do, when they're told to do such and such by some super-god, (raising his voice) I don't think that's very good! . . . But the problem is, in our society, there are people who like to be told what to do. As a performer I'm happy to be told what to do when it's somebody like Bach or Mozart telling me, because if it weren't for them there wouldn't be all this beautiful music. I'm really happy to follow a set of instructions by Mozart, of what keys to put down when, because what results is really very beautiful.

VS: Would you feel just as happy if the music had been written by one of your classmates?

DL: Yes. Oh, absolutely! In fact, when I get really good pieces from students, I always copy them, so that I have copies of pieces that are being done. I get a tremendous feeling of satisfaction out of something like that.

VS: How would you judge music? What kind of criterion would you use?

DL: Well, (sighs) it's really a problem, and one of our biggest problems in that particular area in the west is that we're always trying to make our judgments verbally about experiences that are non-verbal I think it's TERRIBLY misleading. I'm a firm believer in responses that are non-verbal: visceral responses, emotional responses..

VS: Couldn't you simply describe the visceral and emotional responses you had?

DL: Yes, you can describe them, but when described, they become verbal responses. Really it's like trying to describe the taste of vanilla to someone who's unfamiliar with it. The important purpose that words serve is to evoke a response that another person has in common. That's important. If there's no shared experience, then the words are useless.

VS: Do you think, then, that there's no place for a music critic in a newspaper?

DL: Well, (laughing) I'd hate to deprive somebody of a job. I really don't know. The problem is, it's possible for a critic to ruin somebody's career if he's having a bad day and writes a devastating review of a piece. How many critics do you know who, when they're hearing a new piece that's not published, will ask the composer for a score so they can study it and be knowledgeable about it? A critic has to be especially careful because everybody accepts what he says.

VS: The critics might take on the role of educators.

DL: Yes, I think that's a very good role for a critic. A critic who's an educator has a duty to be pretty open-minded and to be really well-educated. He has to have a hard-core understanding of what's going on.

VS: How do you think someone who wants to write music today should go about preparing for his career as a composer? Was your education satisfactory ?

DL: Yes, it was satisfactory because I carried out most of it myself, and this really gets to the point about how I would answer your question. I think that a good many people, probably the majority of people in music, are essentially self-educated. The general public educates itself as it will by means of what's at its disposal, like phonograph records and radio. This has produced a fair education in a lot of people. With the L.P. record has come an INCREDIBLE music boom. In the late '40s when Muzak came in, every restaurant and every grocery store had music. There were forecasts of doom, that with hearing music all the time, no one would be interested in music any longer. This constant bombardment would spell the end of music as we know it. Well, as you know, EXACTLY the opposite happened. Instead of dying, music boomed, and in terms of dollars, which is what everybody measures anyway, it is THE largest recreational enterprise in the United States. BMI tells us that in 1967, $1 in every $5 spent on recreation in the U.S. went for music. This includes records, pianos, guitars, sheet music, lessons, the whole works. I think that's absolutely revolutionary. Even though most people are self-educated, I don't think that self-education is the only answer, but it certainly is important.

There are more orchestras in the United States than there were 25 years ago, and they're AMATEUR orchestras. (About 800 new symphony orchestras were founded in the U.S. between 1939 and 1967, bringing the total to 1,400.) Well, maybe they don't play very well, but they get in and they PLAY. They're not just sitting down and listening to Mozart. I think it's very important to hear Mozart played really well, and it's fun to hear it done live, but it's most important to play it yourself, even if you don't do it as well as the Chicago Symphony. You'll never really understand what the experience is about until you've done it, and once you've done it, you understand the Chicago Symphony a lot better than you did before, and you understand Mozart better. Well, nobody would try to claim that schools or private teachers have been able to educate all these people and produce this tremendous boom. It's the result of a technological revolution, and if anything, I think the educational institutions have resisted a lot of this. Schools have resisted the idea that the guitar was a legitimate instrument, for instance, and have for a long time resisted the legitimate value of jazz.

VS: How would you explain that so few people are interested in going to a serious new music concert?

DL: I think the reason a good many people aren't interested in new music is that new music isn't interesting. It's just not interesting, to most anybody. In answering your question I'm speaking of the generally accepted, international school of composition, the university circuit.

VS: You wouldn't include John Cage in here ?

DL: No! Heavens no! And the university musicians would still be upset if you tried to, although their upset is less over the years, because he has proven himself to be a very, very important figure.

VS: Would you say that Cage has a much wider following than the academic composers?

DL: Oh, much! Absolutely. Much wider. In fact, there are people who follow Cage whether they realize it or not, just because his influence in the arts, ALL the arts, is greater than that of any individual in the twentieth century, and I include ANYBODY.

VS: Has academic music become too complicated?

DL: Yes. It's too complex. It's too much geared to intellect, and at the same time there are a couple of other problems with it, too. Well, you know the history of it as well as I do. From the hyper-emotiona1 expressionistic style in the first two decades of this century to the highly complex music beyond the Schoenberg system, we went from the most highly emotional music that we've known in western music to the most highly intellectual music that probably any culture has ever known. The public was lost on both fronts. Cymbals crashing and huge climaxes in music just eventually defeat themselves, and as far as I can see, the public is not going to want to have a steady diet of works like Pierrot Lunaire or the Second String Quartet as wonderful as all these pieces are. The other approach. where you try to cram as much information as possible into each note, — well, human beings really can't operate on that level constantly if they can operate on that level at all, Another problem is that the atonal style has become a cliché because of the movies and television. You find eclectic composers in Hollywood writing free atonal scores and using expressionistic ideas in their music to express tension, fear, and so on... To a certain extent, bad music in a style makes the good music in that style less valuable, if you see what I mean. It's very complicated and I don't know how it works, really, but at the same time, these things have really happened.

(Leedy talks about the public acceptance of contemporary music now and in previous centuries, then returns to talking about education.)

I think we're at the stage in the development in the United States where we should be looking towards customizing education for people. People ought to be able to write their own programs instead of having to go through the same old mill. I like the idea of apprenticeship, and I think a young musician should look for a mentor, and stick with him. He should learn all that his mentor has to offer, and then find somebody else. This requires that a young person have an active interest in his own education. It's more than just signing up for school and doing everything. At the same time, a student also has to put himself in a passive position. For the time you have a mentor, you really have to do exactly what he says, because you're learning a skill. You have to accept what he says, and this means you have to put your likes and dislikes aside for a little while. But it's YOUR decision to do that, and once you decide to follow a master, you really have to obey. It's HARD, especially in American civilization where the young have to rebel against the old. .

VS: How do you react to the musical environment here on the west coast?

DL: I LOVE the environment on the west coast. I think the '60s were kind of a high point in the cultural history of this area and it may have declined somewhat since then. There was a lot of communication between people at Berkeley, the San Francisco Conservatory, and even Stanford. I don't mean the faculty, 1 mean the students. People were just interested in getting together and doing things. It was an energetic time. We at Cal would go down to Mills all the time for concerts.

I've always thought that the west coast is a very good environment for freedom of experimentalism, or whatever. And certainly if you look at the list of west coast composers, and of people who worked here, you see that there have been a LOT of composers. Of course, Cage is a famous example. Henry Cowell, Harry Partch, and Lou Harrison are also famous. They've had a real world view of music.

There's never been any real desire of anybody much, on the west coast to organize. We don't have any real spirit of organization, but there's an openness of communication. There's VERY little feeling of hostility or competitiveness. Pauline Oliveros expressed to me better than anybody I've run into the idea that you can't hog an idea. If you have a musical idea, it REALLY belongs to everybody. I believe that too. And that's the of idea that I felt when I was here in school, and the idea that I still feel in the west of the United States,

VS: Would you say that some of this communication has diminished in the last few years?

DL: I don't know. I'm not very optimistic about the future, to tell you the truth. Berkeley has slid tremendously just in the quality of life. I think people are less considerate of one another here than they were five years ago. It's a noisier, dirtier place. Dogs are running all over biting people. — This is true of San Francisco, too, and it's spreading to Portland. This sense of belonging, and having a feeling for the other seems to have disappeared to some extent. I think that's as bad for music as it is for every other aspect of life. As marvelous as music is, it's only as good as everything else, and if everything else falls apart, so it. I wish I could be optimistic.

VS: Is composition dying as an art?

DL: No, but here again I must say that composition is only a very small thing, taken as a part of music as a whole, and it really shouldn't be separated from music making in general.